When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meets American President Ronald Reagan in Washington next week, the air will be filled with expressions of goodwill. Fine: That's part of treatymaking, and treaties are precious things. But no amount of pomp should obscure one of the basic issues separating these two nations: the rights of family members living on opposite sides of the East-West divide to visit one another. Of all the items on the human rights agenda, this one affects the broadest swath of citizens in both the United States and the Soviet Union.
Yet it's an issue often overlooked in the heady world of international summitry. The Soviets, of course, prefer it that way. They would hardly benefit by having the world recognize the delays, expenses, and outright refusals routinely encountered by Soviet citizens who apply to visit relatives abroad or to have relatives come visit them. Nor have American negotiators pressed the issue in the past. When human rights comes up for discussion, it's usually in the context of the emigration of dissidents and Jews who want to leave the USSR for good.
But what about all the ordinary Soviets who have no intention of leaving for good? All they want to do is visit or play host. Shouldn't that be easy to arrange?
That's a question which, for the past three years, Daniel and Tamara Horodysky of Berkeley, Calif., have been asking. So far, the Soviet answer has been a growling nyet. But the Horodyskys, who trace their roots to the Ukraine, are determined to ease open the family-visitation door. Together they chair an organization called VISA (Visits International for Soviets and Americans), helping Americans who wish to visit Soviet relatives.
The task hasn't been easy. ``The Soviet government,'' notes Mr. Horodysky sadly, ``does everything possible to keep relatives from meeting each other.'' Strangers, fine. Students on exchanges, journalists on tour, artists coming to perform - these categories are opening up in the era of glasnost. But not family members. The situation is cockeyed enough that both houses of Congress unanimously passed resolutions this year identifying the issue of unrestricted family visits as ``an essential part of American policy toward the Soviet Union.'' Now White House officials have scheduled a pre-summit seminar Dec. 3 to hear firsthand from Horodysky and several other representatives from human-contacts groups.
How important is the issue to America? Horodysky answers with figures. Some 4 million Americans trace their immediate ancestry to territory now incorporated into the Soviet Union - Armenians, Byelorussians, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and a host of others. Many are recent 'emigr'es, eager to visit an aging mother or grandmother still living in the Soviet Union.
Yet Soviet figures show that only about 1,500 Soviets visit American relatives each year. And only about 1,000 Americans annually receive permission to visit the home of a Soviet relative. A new Soviet law, put into place last January, appears to support such visits. But little has really changed: Apply for a visa, say the Horodyskys, and you still run into a wall of procrastination and refusal among Soviet consular officials.
Well, so what? In the high-stakes summit game, why risk losing a nuclear agreement for the sake of a few grandmothers? Why not just agree to disagree over these little distinctions?
The answer is that the distinctions are hardly ``little.'' They go to the heart of what the Soviet government is all about - its paranoia about being spied upon by outsiders, its fear of exposing its citizenry to Western ways, its dread of losing control over its populace - and its gnawing and very real anxiety that family ties, if left unchecked, would naturally command more loyalty than the authority of the state itself.
These aren't new points: They have characterized the Soviet Union for decades. As the summit approaches, however, they're worth keeping in mind. All the talk about newfound Soviet openness, and all the fanfare of summitry, may make it appear that next week's negotiations will be taking place between equals. They won't be.
Until the Soviets arrive at a more open visitation policy, the equation simply won't balance. After all, how far do you trust a government that won't trust its own grandmothers?
A Monday column